I remember the Summer of 1997 when a shoebox-sized Mars rover literally broke the Internet.
Sojourner – the first rover we sent to another planet – had just landed on Mars in a giant space airbag bouncing along the surface to a safe stop. The Internet was new. And I was a young space enthusiast with a dial-up modem. For the first time, images from a space exploration mission were beamed to an audience that was connected online. Now we use the term “broke the Internet” as a hyperbolic phrase for various Internet phenomena, but interest in the Mars mission in 97 drove so many hits to NASA mirror servers around the world that global web traffic was disrupted. Patiently I watched as, line by line, orange sky to red stone, the first image posted by NASA loaded on my screen…it took about an hour. Each line resolved was like my own exploration of the planet. And finally, the landing site, in “real time”, was revealed to me and the entire world all at once. What would we discover together?
In 2018, Mars experienced one of its global dust storms, a phenomenon seen nowhere else. As science would have it, there were no fewer than six spacecraft in orbit around Mars at the time, and two surface rovers. This was an unprecedented opportunity to watch and study the storm.
Opportunity’s final message home is not much to look at on its own. If you’re old enough to remember film cameras, it looks like the final exposure on a roll of film, developed but partly missing. It’s a suitable epitaph for Opportunity’s mission.
NASA has shared Opportunity’s final photograph from the surface of Mars. The rover’s final resting place is in Endeavour Crater, and barring any statistically unlikely event, it will sit there for centuries, millennia, or even longer. And instead of a tombstone, we have this final image.
NASA’s Opportunity rover has reached the end of its life. Initially designed to last 90 days, and to travel only 1000 meters (1100 yards), the rover spent almost 15 years exploring the surface of Mars. During that time, it travelled more than 45 kilometers (28 miles.)
Could this be the end of the Opportunity rover? There’s been no signal from the rover since last summer, when a massive global dust storm descended on it. But even though the craft has been silent and unreachable for six-and-a-half months, NASA hasn’t given up.
When Opportunity landed at Meridiani Planum on Mars in January 2004, it’s planned mission length was only 90 days. Since that day, which seems so long ago now, 15 years have passed, and over one billion people have been born on Earth. Six months ago, the rover stopped working, maybe for good. So by every measure, Opportunity has been a stunning success.
A tiny electric motor on the Curiosity rover played a role in identifying a global Martian dust storm. The storm completely enveloped the planet between May and July, 2018. It was the biggest storm since 2007.
Martian dust storms are a pretty common occurrence, and generally happen whenever the southern hemisphere is experiencing summer. Though they can begin quite suddenly, these storms typically stay contained to a local area and last only about a few weeks. However, on occasion, Martian dust storms can grow to become global phenomena, covering the entire planet.
One such storm began back in May, starting in the Arabia Terra region and then spreading to become a planet-wide dust storm within a matter of weeks. This storm caused the skies over the Perseverance Valley, where the Opportunity rover is stationed, to become darkened, forcing the rover into hibernation mode. And while no word has been heard from the rover, NASA recently indicated that the dust storm will dissipate in a matter of weeks.
The update was posted by NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, which oversees operations for the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, as well as NASA’s three Mars orbiters (Mars Odyssey, MRO, and MAVEN) and the Insight lander (which will land on Mars in 109 days). According to NASA, the storm is beginning to end, though it may be weeks or months before the skies are clear enough for Opportunity to exit its hibernation mode.
As noted, dust storms occur on Mars when the southern hemisphere experiences summer, which coincides with the planet being closer to the Sun in its elliptical orbit. Due to increased temperatures, dust particles are lifted higher into the atmosphere, creating more wind. The resulting wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists are still trying to understand.
Since the southern polar region is pointed towards the Sun in the summer, carbon dioxide frozen in the polar cap evaporates. This has the effect of thickening the atmosphere and increasing the surface pressure, which enhances the process by helping suspend dust particles in the air. In some cases, the dust clouds can reach up to 60 km (40 mi) or more in elevation.
Planet-wide dust storms are a relatively rare occurrence on Mars, taking place every three to four Martian years (the equivalent of approximately 6 to 8 Earth years). Such storms have been viewed many times in the past by missions like Mariner 9 (1971), Viking I (1971) and the Mars Global Surveyor (2001). In 2007, a similar storm took place that darkened the skies over where Opportunity was stationed – which led to two weeks of minimal operations and no communications.
While smaller and less intense the storm that took place back in 2007, the current storm intensified to the point where it led to a level of atmospheric opacity that is much worse than the 2007 storm. In effect, the amount of dust in the atmosphere created a state of perpetual night over the rover’s location in Perseverance Valley, which forced the rover’s science team to suspend operations.
This is due to the fact that Opportunity – unlike the Curiosity rover, which runs on nuclear-powered battery – relies on solar panels to keep its batteries charged. But beyond suspending operations, the prolonged dust storm also means that the rover might not be to keep its energy-intensive survival heaters running – which protect its batteries from the extreme cold of Mars’ atmosphere.
Luckily, NASA scientists who have been observing the global event indicated that, as of last Monday (July 23rd), more dust was falling out of the planet’s thin air than was being raised into it. This means that the global weather event has reached its decay phase, where dust-raising events either become confined to smaller areas or stop altogether.
Using its Mars Color Imager (MARCI) and Mars Climate Sounder (MCS), NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) also noted surface features were beginning to reappear and that temperatures in the middle atmosphere were no longer rising – which indicates less solar heating by dust. The Curiosity rover also noted a decline in dust above its position in the Gale Crater on the other side of the planet.
This is certainly good new for the Opportunity rover, though scientists expect that it will still be a few weeks or months before its solar panels can draw power again and communications can be reestablished. The last time communications took place with the rover was on June 10th, but if there’s one thing the Opportunity rover is known for, it’s endurance!
When the rover first landed on Mars on January 25th, 2004, its mission was only expected to last ninety Martian days (sols), which is the equivalent of about 92.5 Earth days. However, as of the writing of this article, the rover has endured for 14 years and 195 days, effectively exceeding its operational lifespan 55 times over. So if any rover can survive this enduring dust storm, its Opportunity!
In the meantime, multiple NASA missions are actively monitoring the storm in support of Opportunity and to learn more about the mechanics of Martian storms. By learning more about what causes these storms, and how smaller ones can merge to form global events, future robotic missions, crewed missions and (quite possibly) Martian colonists will be better prepared to deal with them.